MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta
Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy
Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas
How Spies Think by David Omand
In fact three of the books reviewed this month are about MI5. The fourth relates more to general intelligence, but it is a noteworthy addition, and marginally concerns MI5, and I wanted to keep the title of the piece simple. ‘Three Books About MI5 – and One Not’ didn’t seem very catchy.
Regular readers will recognize that the main focus of my research into intelligence agencies has been MI5, with occasional ventures into MI6, GCHQ, and SOE. If ever I were to attempt a second book, it would be called The Authoritative But Unauthorised History of MI5 (hereafter referred to as TABU). Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 is a monumental work, very readable, and a valuable companion, but I have consistently maintained that it is too ambitious in its scope, flawed in its methodology, unscholarly in its references to sources, and far too delicate in its avoidance of controversy. That last aspect may have been forced upon its author, but then he should not have succumbed to such pressures if he wanted to preserve his academic prestige.
Above all, there is a wealth of information that needs to be incorporated in any comprehensive history of MI5, with hundreds of files released to the National Archives that require a concentrated and disciplined amount of cross-referencing, a process that would then shed much light on the activities of MI5 officers. I could start TABU with my research into Fuchs, Peierls, Pontecorvo, Philby, Maclean, Blunt, Ursula Kuczynski, Gouzenko, etc. etc. and package the stories into a book on its own. Then there are the figures who have not been properly covered: for example, Alexander Foote, Oliver Green, Dave Springhall, Guy Liddell, Roger Hollis, and Jane Archer.
A more serious approach would carve MI5’s history up into more manageable sections. Thomas Hennessey and Claire Thomas attempted something similar in their three-volume ‘Unofficial History of MI5’, titled Spooks (2009-2011), but their compilation inexplicably lacks an index, which is a fatal flaw. It provides a measure of useful chronicling, but contains numerous errors, and is overall unusable. Another project is required, perhaps covering separately the era of each MI5 director-general. Thus Volume 1 would take us to 1940 with Kell (1909-1940), with perhaps a chapter on Harker’s interregnum, Volume 2 with Petrie (1940 to 1946), Volume 3 with Sillitoe (1946 to 1953), Volume 4 with White (1953-1956), Volume 5 with Hollis (1956-1965), and Volume 6 with Furnival-Jones (1965-1972) – furnished perhaps with an appendix on Hanley’s molehunts, while the remaining Volumes would await further release of archival material. Whoever is charged with managing this enterprise, I hope that he or she has access to the TABU sources available on coldspur.
Meanwhile, some potentially valuable books exploring lesser-known aspects of MI5’s history continue to appear – some absurdly priced – and it is my allotted task this month to analyse what I found in them.
MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta (Oxford University Press, 2020)
This hefty volume is described in the following terms: “[It] is concerned with the powers, activities, and accountability of MI5 principally in the period from 1945 to 1964. It was a body without statutory authority, with no statutory powers, and with no obvious forms of statutory accountability. It was established as a counter-espionage agency, yet was beset by espionage scandals on a frequency that suggested if not high levels of incompetence, then high levels of distraction and the squandering of resources.”
This is all very stirring stuff, in the tradition (it would appear) of that overlooked classic of counter-intelligence analysis, Misdefending the Realm, which the authors unaccountably do not list in their Bibliography, while giving ample recognition to those renowned chroniclers of the truth, Chapman Pincher, Kim Philby and Peter Wright. Since my attention was focussed on the period 1939-1941, with some projection into 1949 and 1950 on account of the Klaus Fuchs case, one might expect a smooth transition from MTR into the post-war challenges posed by Gouzenko, Nunn May, Fuchs and Pontecorvo, followed by the growing controversies surrounding Burgess and Maclean up to Philby’s disappearance in 1963.
Yet this is not a conventional study. Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta are lawyers – and their book is therefore a ‘lawyerly’ approach to the mission of MI5, with an emphasis on rights, and discrimination and surveillance. Readers should thus not be surprised when they encounter sentences such as: “That said, it must also be recognized that the consequence of vetting was to discriminate against individuals, either on grounds of their political affiliations or beliefs, or on the ground of their lifestyle.” (p 303)
To an audience in 2021, ‘discrimination’ is clearly a highly negative term. After all, MI5 recently put out a press release stating that ‘in the interests of diversity’, and ‘to ensure that our personnel accurately reflect the community they serve’, the agency would ‘begin a recruiting campaign to hire all manner of riff-raff, ne’er-do-wells, losers, and subversives to its counter-intelligence staff’. [That was intended as a joke. I do not believe any such statement has been made – yet.] In 1950, however, such a policy of ‘discrimination’ should have been seen as eminently sensible, as it should be now. Why on earth should a government department, or a company with governmental contracts engaged on secret work, not discriminate against persons whose avowed objective was to destroy the whole liberal democracy? For we are talking about Communists (Party members), and communists (fellow-travellers), here.
Be that as it may, the authors start off by providing a very useful and detailed inspection of the movements between the electoral success of Clement Attlee in July 1945, flushed with the recent victory between the western allies and their counterpart, the Soviet Union, and Attlee’s recognition, a few years later, after detection of spies and warlike impulses from Stalin, that communist influence in government needed to be stamped out. Attlee was suddenly not beholden to his Left Wing any more. This period was well summarized by Christopher Andrew in Defend the Realm (pp 382-386), and Ewing and Co. exploit the rich archival sources now available to track the important contributions of civil servants like Findlater Stewart and Edward Bridges (neither of whom appear in Andrew’s book), and the efforts by MI5 to resist any controls over its independence.
The focus of the authors is very much on the constitutional authority of MI5, and especially its involvement in ‘surveillance’. Indeed, the word ‘Surveillance’ appears in six of the fifteen chapters’ headings, and is a dominant theme throughout. This expressed dislike of ‘surveillance’ concerns these lawyers the most. It even leads them into some unfortunate misconceptions. As early as page 7, in the Introduction, they write: “Yet we too had a secret police . . .” While MI5 operated secretly, however, it was not a police force with powers of arrest and prosecution, and suggestions that it was somehow akin to the Gestapo and the NKVD are irresponsible. The motif is picked up later, on page 51, where the following interpretation appears: “Quite apart from the form of words used, further evidence that MI5 was being authorized to act as a secret political police force rather than a counter-espionage agency is to be found . . .”.
These lawyers admit to sympathies for ‘progressive’ views. “Lawyers had no immunity from MI5 surveillance during the Cold War, and progressive lawyers had even less”, they write (p 168). They hail ‘the progressive National Unemployed Workers Movement “ (p 11). They lament how certain presumably ‘advanced’ members of parliament were treated: “In terms of MI5’s mandate (defence of the realm, as threatened by subversion and espionage), what we have here is a situation in which progressive MPs were the subject of fairly intrusive MI5 and Special Branch surveillance on two grounds.” (p 150)
Now, I am not certain what distinguishes a ‘progressive’ lawyer from a ‘regressive’ one (after all, should they not simply be interpreting the law?), but if they are borrowing from the world of economics and politics, they are entering dangerous ground. I could just about accept that ‘progressive’ taxation has an accepted definition concerning the increasing confiscation of wealth from those who either earn a lot or possess substantial assets, but the idea of a ‘progressive’ politician (as espoused by the New York Times and its Nobelist idol of American academia, Paul Krugman) in fact indicates someone on the loony Left who wants the government to pay for free childcare, fund reparations for slavery, forgive all student loans, distribute a universal minimum wage, offer free healthcare, community college tuition, etc. etc. with monies that it does not have, and will never have a chance of collecting.
I do not believe that historians or lawyers should ever start classifying people as ‘progressives’, as they end up sounding like a Pravda editorial, or a functionary from the Politburo. For example, here is Molotov speaking on the new Soviet constitution in 1937, quoting Stalin: “We are entirely on the side of those who have at heart the interests of ‘the whole of advanced and progressive humanity’”. Thus one has to question exactly what sort of world Ewing, Mahoney, and Moretta are progressing towards when they champion the protection of subversive elements whom the government is funding, and analyze the poorly-named ‘Purge’ Procedures. With some apparent sense of regret, they write (p 248): “Although in practice most civil servants at the time  enjoyed secure tenure and relatively good conditions of service, they could nevertheless be hired and fired at will, with no remedy in the event of a transfer or termination on security grounds”. This is a commentary on Attlee’s statement to the Cabinet of March 25, where he essentially expressed exactly that policy. (And Attlee went so far as to include the shocking statement: ‘Even promotion does not come of right’. The injustice! The iniquity!) If it was good enough for the socialist Attlee in 1948, why question it now?
The authors are on much stronger ground when they analyze MI5’s policies being carried out in practice against the broader public. I have commented before on the colossal waste of time, and the occupation of yards and yards of filing space, that was driven by MI5’s vague and all-encompassing policy of ‘keeping an eye on’ possibly disruptive elements. Literally hundreds of intellectuals, academics, union leaders and CP members were at large, spreading falsehoods about the phenomenon of Soviet Russia, and denigrating what they viewed as the oppressive, exploitative nature of western democratic society. There was thus a continuous hum that abetted Soviet propaganda, and apologists for the relatively free and enlightened United Kingdom struggled to find the right voice and outlet. The ‘scandal’ that erupted when Encounter magazine was found to have been funded by the CIA was typical of this: why on earth should a government organisation not assist a publication that promoted western values?
Nearly all these dubious characters were never going to be caught in any illegal act, such as bomb-throwing, or passing state secrets to a Soviet contact. Dave Springhall was a notable exception, and his arrest caused alarm and dismay in Moscow. As the authors point out, the most dangerous activity was taking place under the noses of MI5’s and MI6’s senior officers, by traitors who had concealed their ideological loyalties. Thus most of the surveillance energy was a wasted effort. As the authors conclude (p 424): “True, we have become accustomed to MI5 – a counter-espionage agency – being over-obsessed with fears of subversion and ill-informed about espionage threats, going back to Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, and of course to ‘Sonya’.” (‘Of course’?)
On more prosecutorial issues, Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta proceed painstakingly through the 1950s and early 1960s, albeit with some confusing jumping around in time, explaining in detail the ramifications of such overlooked but much cherished phenomena as The Radcliffe Report on Positive Vetting, the Maxwell Fyffe Directive and the George Wigg Codicil. With their published concern about the fashionable leftist bogey of ‘witch hunts’, they offer a barbed criticism of Lord Denning as the Grand Inquisitor, but cover the Vassall case well, and are very incisive and accurate in their criticism of the government’s performance in the Profumo case. One probably long-forgotten grievance they document is the case of one John Lang, a solicitor with ICI who had lost the confidence of its board because he had, in 1951, married a woman who had been a member of the Communist Party, and has thus appeared on MI5’s radar trail. The authors fail to make any comparison with the romantic affairs of Dick White, the director-general of MI5 a couple of years later, who had himself married a communist at the end of the war.
One highly useful component of the volume is the Appendix on the Post-War Structure of MI5. (This was the feature that introduced me to the book, when I was conducting a Google search.) The neglect by Christopher Andrew of this important facet of MI5’s operations is one of the severest failings of Defend the Realm, and I had been strenuously trying to establish (for instance) exactly the extent to which Roger Hollis was working in Soviet counter-espionage after the war. His rump Division F became reconstituted into the new B Division at the end of 1946, after which Hollis headed B1 for a couple of years. The preliminary conclusions from this narrative indicate that Hollis became Director of C Division in December 1948, and was for some years involved in relatively inconsequential vetting procedures away from the main spy-fighting unit when the Fuchs and Pontecorvo cases were rumbling, a fact that I have since confirmed from a closer inspection of Liddell’s Diaries. The authors’ analysis of the records that source their inquiry (KV 4/162 and KV 4/166, primarily) is close and detailed, but patchy and error-prone. I have ordered photocopies of the relevant material, and plan to provide a fuller account on coldspur at some time, as a follow-up to my piece from November 2018, B2B or Not B2B?.
The standard of copy-editing in this book from the venerated Oxford University Press is sadly lamentable. Thus we read of ‘invetigations’, ‘a corrigenda’, and ‘enior judiciary’. One sub-chapter is headed ‘The Expulcation of MI5’. Persons’ names are mis-spelled: ‘Gielgud’ appears as ‘Gilguid’; ‘Beurton’ as ‘Buerton’; on a single page (219) Evelyn McBarnet appears as ‘McBarnet’ and ‘Barnet’. Sir Burke (later Lord) Trend is introduced as ‘Sir Burke’ on page 302 (without a respective index entry), and referred to thereafter as ‘Sir Burke’. One or two incomprehensible sentences obtrude, such as the verbless creature on p 369: “It is disappointing, nevertheless, that the official trade union structures co-operative in both the development of the Radcliffe exclusion policy and its extension and implementation.” Percy Sillitoe is described as being the director-general of MI5 in September 1945 (p 236), when he did not accede to the position until the following April. A similar mistake is made over Roger Hollis, when he is presented as being the director-general in November 1952 (p 320). The authors make several mistakes about Soviet espionage, such as asserting that Dave Springhall ran the Cambridge Five (p 233), and a puzzling judgment about the need for secrecy at GCHQ (p 352). They claim that the trials of Nunn May and Fuchs were both held in camera, when in fact both were public.
In conclusion, this is a bit of a clunker; a useful compendium for the earnest scholar of constitutional law, with hundreds of valuable references to archival material that might otherwise have been overlooked, but a bit laborious in its repeated plaints about MI5 as a secret police force, and its obvious bias in favour of (disputable) rights and entitlements for the left-wing cause. Nevertheless, it properly raises some important points about the constitutional and legal basis on which MI5’s surveillance powers are based, which never go away.
Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006)
I had to make a further raid on my wife’s gardening budget to acquire this volume, which had somehow lain undetected by me since its release fifteen years ago. I cannot recall where I encountered it, but its title beckoned unavoidably, since earlier this year I was earnestly trying to hunt down information on the decision to send the enigmatic George Graham (né Leontieff) to Moscow as George Hill’s special assistant and cipher-clerk in 1941. Murphy is described as ‘an independent scholar . . . formerly Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research’. I was not familiar with that institution, which is apparently celebrating its centenary this year. Unfortunately, its resources seem designed for research libraries and universities through a subscription service, and, like Taylor and Francis, offers no flexible subscription package for a retiree like me.
The book arrived, and I re-inspected the blurb: “The first comprehensive account of the work of the Security Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War, . . .”, and Richard Thurlow, of the University of Sheffield, added his commendation: “Security and Special Operations is a significant addition to the burgeoning literature of the history of the Special Operations Executive.” Thurlow, I see, wrote a book titled The Secret State, published in 1994, that I should perhaps read. So I turned eagerly to the Contents and Index, to discover what Murphy had written about the Russian Section of SOE in his ‘comprehensive’ account.
The answer was – not one word. That was a colossal disappointment. How could this be a ‘comprehensive’ account if it neglected to cover the most controversial of all of SOE’s undertakings – its attempt to ‘co-operate’ with the NKVD, the most suspicious, unyielding, aggressive and demanding ‘intelligence’ organisation in the world? And how did Murphy’s sponsors (“The archival research on which this book is based was made possible by a Leverhulme Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Centre for British History at the Institute of Historical Research”) not supervise adequately Murphy’s project to ensure that it delivered the goods? Leaving the Russian Section out was like recounting the tale of Harry Potter without mentioning Voldemort. [Is this correct, Thelma? I was going to write ‘Hamlet without the Prince’, but I wanted an analogy that today’s readers would understand . . . Please emend as necessary. Tony].
What is notable is the fact that Murphy also thanks one Duncan Stuart (‘former SOE Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’) for his help, ‘pointing me in the right direction with a single sheet of paper’. Is it not strange that the F&CO would need an ‘adviser’ for a unit that was dissolved in January 1946? Was he perhaps appointed in 1943, and kept his position for several decades, forgotten and untroubled? His status sounds rather like that of Peter Simple’s Dr. Heinz Kiosk, ‘chief psychiatric adviser to the National Meringue and Profiterole Authority’. Yet it is an important position, and was in fact designed to ‘help’ historians, not the Foreign Office itself. E. G. Boxshall was the first appointee, in 1959, but for much of the period my record is bare. Christopher Woods occupied the post from 1983 to 1988, and Gervase Cowell (of Oleg Penkovsky/Greville Wynne fame) followed him until 1996, with Duncan Stuart, the last Adviser, succeeding him, and retiring in 2002. Thus to Dr. Murphy I would say: ‘I am sure Stuart did indeed orient you, squire, and pointed you away from the files on the Russian Section, which you were not capable of finding by yourself.’ The last thing an SOE Adviser would want is someone digging around in files he did not understand, whose revelations might be embarrassing, and which the Adviser was trying to get withdrawn, in any case . . .
Despite its obvious oversights, I of course read the book. As the image above shows, the cover displays the determined visage of the ‘double agent’ Henri Déricourt, taken in November 1946. When I read the volume several months ago, I had only a very hazy idea of who Déricourt was, but, now that I have become involved with Patrick Marnham and War in the Shadows, he is a subject of immense interest to me. Murphy dedicates ten dense pages to the aspects of the Déricourt affair which intrigue him, but it is symptomatic of his methods that he completely misses the point, starting his investigation only with the events of November 1943, when all the damage had been done in the preceding twelve months. I shall return to this analysis later.
Murphy has clearly applied some serious delving into the archives to put a story together. He lists an impressive Bibliography, but his detailed and very useful Endnotes are almost exclusively from files at the National Archives, and they thus for some reason ignore the published sources. Concerning the establishment of the Security Section of SOE – a unit that was much resented by the Country Sections – Murphy painstakingly explains the struggles that Air Commodore Archie Boyle experienced after he was appointed Director of Intelligence and Security in July 1941. There was ‘physical’ security (maintaining the secrecy of what went on in SOE’s various establishments), and ‘esoteric’ security, which former SOE security officer Peter Lee described as work ‘including the double cross system, running double agents [and] the very high grade interrogation of people coming out of occupied territories.’ The latter were the functions that the country sections resented, as they felt their judgments were being questioned, and the bureaucrats were putting obstacles in the way of their achieving results.
While Murphy understands well the question of how relationships between SOE and MI5 (what he calls, in the familiar jargon of our time, ‘adequate liaison machinery’) should work, he is somewhat ponderous in explaining its ramifications. He really gets going with the MI5 connections only in Chapter 4, when Geoffrey Wethered was appointed in early 1943 as the SOE Liaison Officer. The need for such had intensified. As Murphy writes: “MI5 had good reason to be concerned over the security of SOE agents in the field. Fears about the extent of undetected German penetration of SOE networks in Belgium, raised during the winter of 1942-1943, were compounded by the ‘increasing number of cases’ of agents returning to the UK having been captured by the German and ‘turned’, a staged escape preceding their return to the UK with a German mission’” In other words, MI5 had every reason to be petrified about the influx of such persons, and their not being vetted stringently enough as they passed through the London Reception Centre in Wandsworth, and how secrets about the Double-Cross Operation might be inadvertently revealed.
Yet Murphy struggles to discriminate clearly between the insignificant and the important episodes. His narrative attempts to pick up every detail of who said what to whom, and how Wethered groped through his difficult task, and the responses by SOE security officer John Senter to Wethered’s recommendations and intrusions. Murphy describes the tensions as the two organisations grappled. The Country Sections continued to act in a blasé fashion. MI5 warned SOE about its ‘shockingly irresponsible’ conduct in sending a dubious character, Barry Knight, to France, and the dispute almost reached the level of Lord Selborne, the minister responsible for SOE, but Duff Cooper backed off. Guy Liddell wanted a softer approach, by talking with Senter’s boss, Archie Boyle.
Thus Murphy introduces the Déricourt story only with the investigations in late 1943, when allegations were made against him, by Jacques Frager (another SOE agent), that he was working for the Germans. Murphy painstakingly goes through the records of the discussions over Déricourt, logging the testimonies of various witness, and the plans to bring Déricourt back to the United Kingdom for interrogation. He thereby ignores all the fracas about Déricourt going back to 1942, when he had been snapped up by Dansey’s henchman, Bodington, in SOE and bypassed all the recommended investigations into his biography that MI5 tried to insist upon. His shady past was suspected then and confirmed in early 1943: Murphy misses all the nuances and sub-plots of this investigation. As with nearly all other historians of this period, he also does not seem to be familiar with the TWIST committee, and the way that MI6 was managing SOE’s ’double agents’ for them. That is understandable (given that the revelations on TWIST appeared only in 2009), but Murphy displays a lack of imagination in not providing the well-documented background material to Déricourt that did exist at the time, and not putting the events of 1946 and after into context.
There is more, on the Double Cross System and the plans for OVERLORD, which the enterprising reader may wish to follow up him- or herself, but overall my judgment is that this book was an opportunity missed. Too much of ‘what one clerk said to another’, in the immortal words of A. J. P. Taylor, and not enough imaginative synthesizing investigation. No risks were taken in the creation of this work, and no endangered species harmed. Murphy draws no integrative conclusions from his study, and the book ends very abruptly, with a Chapter he titles ‘Unfinished Business’. He covers some of the post-mortems, especially the ‘Nordpol’ operation in the Netherlands, and a fruitless interrogation of Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr at Camp 020, in an attempt to learn more about Déricourt, but his only conclusion is to suggest that MI5’s interest in SOE soon waned after the war, ‘as the new security priorities of the Cold War emerged’.
I suspect the reality is more complex than that. For example, the failure to even consider the Russian Section is unpardonable, in my opinion. I of course wrote to Murphy about this oversight, and then, failing to gain any response from his email address, tried to call him on the telephone, leaving him a message on his answering machine. He never responded, and I thus add him to my list of appalling academics who advertise an email address, but never want to engage with any of the public who read their books. As Ko-Ko might have sung:
The reclusive annalist, I’ve got him on my list.
I don’t think he’d be missed! I’m sure he’d not be missed!
[What do you think, Thelma? Will my readers recognise The Mikado?]
Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas (Manchester University Press, 2017)
I do not think it is a sensible idea to introduce a question in the title of a serious book on intelligence: it makes it sound like a conference presentation where you want to keep your audience in suspense. But, if you haven’t made up your mind by the time you have completed writing its 250-plus pages, you have probably chosen the wrong topic. It is not as if the eager reading public is walking around thinking: ‘Gee, I wonder whether the relationship between Intelligence and Security during Attlee’s premiership was uncomfortable in any way, and I wish some capable academic would sort it all out for me’, partly because ‘Intelligence’ and ‘Security’ are merely abstract nouns, and do not have relationships with governments, and I do not believe that anyone has made the claim that the Attlee administration was exceptional in that dimension. So not a good start. Yet, according to his biographical profile at Salford, Lomas’s book was shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize for first academic monograph.
Dr. Lomas is described as Lecturer in International History at the University of Salford, and an early warning signal is communicated in the second sentence of his ‘Acknowledgements’, where he thanks his colleague, Dr. Christopher J. Murphy, of renown in this parish above, for ‘his cherished advice and support’ throughout his research. And here is another academic who manages to gain sponsorship from a charitable institution – this time the Arts and Humanities Research Council. How do these guys do it? All that money flowing around, simply to spend some hours in the dusty archives? Moreover, he lists a whole stream of eminent persons who gave him ‘valuable advice’, such as Countess Attlee, Professor Richard Aldrich, Dr Gill Bennett, Tom Bower, Professor Keith Jeffery, Dr Christopher Moran, Professor the Lord (Kenneth) Morgan, etc. etc. (I did not see David Hare, John le Carré or Ben Macintyre on the list.) What did they tell him?: ‘Go West, young man’? ‘Don’t forget to floss’? And how does one handle all that advice, and what happens if their advice clashes? To whom would one turn? It beats me. Perhaps Lomas would have won that Whitfield Prize if he had used fewer advisers.
In fact the book starts out promisingly, with an Introduction that offers an insightful tour d’horizon of the state of play in historiography of the Labour Party and MI5 and MI6. He suggests that the phenomenon of ‘the missing dimension’, first formulated by Christopher Andrew and David Dilks, is still at work in writings about political history, although he lets off certain biographers (including one of his advisers) because they did not have access to relevant archival material at the time. He crisply describes the effect of the 2005 Freedom of Information Act, and how its good intentions are often hindered by bureaucratic trudgery. And he sensibly reminds his readers of the large number of other sources, including private papers, that need to be mined to cover the era properly. He provides a rich bibliography, comprising a wide array of papers from various Ministries, as well as MI5 records, although his ‘primary’ source documents are dominated by possibly dubious memoirs from notable participants, with presumably more objective accounts from eminent (and not so eminent) historians relegated to ‘secondary’ level.
He then provides a brief history of the British Labour party’s relationship with ‘intelligence’, in which he unfortunately deploys the 21st-century cliché of ‘the intelligence community’, as well as that misplaced metaphor of ‘the machinery’. (If historians want to refer to ‘intelligence agencies’, they should do so: classifying them, alongside GCHQ, as a ‘community’ distorts the battles and rivalries that flourished then, and still do, just as with the FBI and the CIA. If they were a ‘community’, they would not be separate units.) Lomas highlights the background to the Labour Party’s electoral victory in 1945, and the historical reasons why socialist politicians might have had cause to be suspicious of more ‘reactionary’ intelligence organisations, going back to the Zinoviev Letter affair of 1924, a fake stage-managed by the Tory Joseph Ball. Yet his conclusion is tentative: “The legacy of the Zinoviev Latter meant that relations between ministers and the intelligence community may have suffered during the initial stages of the second MacDonald government, elected in June 129.” That ‘may’ demands a lot more analysis.
Yet Lomas effectively destroys his straw man at the outset. The concluding clause of this section runs: “ . . . the legacy of Zinoviev was not as damaging as popularly [by whom?] suggested, showing that Labour-intelligent relations were on the mend”. His synopsis of Chapter 1 reinforces this idea by stating that, since Labour ministers in Churchill’s coalition government had access to, and use of, intelligence, ‘the experience ended any lingering animosity that remained from the Zinoviev Letter affair.” So the notion of debunking the rumour of ‘an uneasy relationship’ quickly appears to be an artificial one. And, if the reader jumps forward to Lomas’s conclusion, one reads: “Rather than intelligence novices, many senior figures in the Attlee government were experienced intelligence committee consumers, having used intelligence products in office.” (p 259). So what was the whole controversy about?
Another example of how Lomas attempts to present his argument as innovative is in his treatment of Attlee. “While it has been argued that Attlee, a committed internationalist, was opposed to any hostility towards the Soviet Union”, he writes, “the chapter shows that he was kept fully aware of Soviet interests and intentions despite his commitment to renewed Anglo-Soviet relations.” But of course he was kept informed. There is no conflict there. Moreover, Lomas introduces his Chapter 6 (‘Defending the Realm: Labour Ministers, vetting and subversion’) with a quote from Attlee expressed as early as 1940: “The Communists have no right to the name of socialists or Communists. They are Stalinists. Whatever Stalin says is right for them . . .” The antithesis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘anti-communism’ is a false one. Attlee saw through Stalin from the start, as did his Foreign Minister, Bevin. It would have been more interesting if Lomas had focused on why the Edenic Tory policy of ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union had been forged in the first place, and if he had explored why a Labour administration had had to undo the appeasement strategies of Attlee’s Conservative predecessors.
Thus what Lomas has compiled is a very readable, well-sourced, integrative study of the fascinating few post-war years where any illusions about Stalin were quickly dispelled. It is overall well-edited (although the U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes appears several times in Chapter 5 as ‘Brynes’, and is not indexed). If the reader is new to this subject, he or she can gain a well-written and widely-sourced account of the Gouzenko affair, the Soviet threats with the atomic bomb, the espionage of Fuchs, Nunn May, and Pontecorvo, the Foreign Office’s propaganda offensive, the disastrous operations against Albania, relations with the USA and the Commonwealth, Attlee’s policy of ‘positive vetting’, and the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean. Lomas has gathered many fascinating accounts of politicians and intelligence, such as Christopher Mayhew’s discussions with Attlee about setting a middle way between American capitalism and Soviet totalitarianism. Topics like these could well have been extended into a novel analysis, but immediately an opportunity seems to appear to develop an innovative study, the text returns to the more platitudinous generalisations. The author tries to wrap it all in a message that is simply not invigorating or imaginative.
Thus for any reader who has performed even only occasional study of these topics, there will be little new to be found here, apart from some incidental minutes and observations from ministers and diplomats, and Lomas misses many of the darker undercurrents that affected the surface appearance of many events. Another example: if the relationship between ministers and MI6 was so good, how was it that Attlee, Bevin and Strang approved the calamitous incursions into Albania? Lomas simply concludes: “The results were far from positive”, and reports that Bevin and Strang then decided to suspend any such activities. These episodes could have provided a stirring stretch of useful analysis, but Lomas simply moves on. At the Conclusion, one reads: “It [this book] has shown that, contrary to existing views of the relationship, ministers enjoyed what could be described as an excellent working relationship with the intelligence community . . .”. Not much of a breakthrough, that, and not really true, anyway.
It is not that the subject of his ‘monograph’ is unworthy of study. Attlee and his period certainly deserve attention, as he was probably the finest British premier of the century, skilled in both management and leadership. The reality otherwise was that ministers came and went, and some were good, and some were duds, while civil servants and the intelligence services went on for ever (with the exception of SOE, of course, which was absorbed by MI6). The intelligence ‘community’ had its rivalries, just as the individual agencies had their internal plots, conspiracies, and competition. Their bosses sometimes lied to their political masters, and intelligence was frequently concealed from those who should have received it – both outside and within the service, such as frequently happened with MI5, where senior officers withheld vital information from the grunts. Lomas seems to want us to believe that everything was hunky-dory, and that the Whitehall ‘machinery’ acted according to well-oiled routines, with politicians and intelligence officers all executing their roles in an exemplary manner. But that was not the case. Unfortunately, his book reads very much as if it had been written by a committee, and maybe that court of advisers helped bring about that result.
The bland monographist, I’ve got him on my list.
He never will be missed! He never will be missed!
How Spies Think by David Omand (Penguin Viking, 2020)
When I first saw this title, I imagined that it might sit handily on my shelf next to the SOE handbook How To Become a Spy, and that I could learn more about what made Anthony Blunt and Richard Sorge tick. Yet it all seemed a little unlikely that a book could be written about such a subject: would not spies be simply concentrating on the topic of ‘How can I get this document to my controller without being spotted?’ But then, inspecting further, I discovered that the book is not really about Spies at all. The subtitle is Ten Lessons in Intelligence: the PR boys must have got hold of it, and told their bosses that the author would never get invitations to the late-night TV shows unless they sexed up the title a bit.
For the author is the distinguished Former Director of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), and more recently ‘the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, responsible for the professional health of the intelligence community [yes, that dread word again], national counter-terrorism strategy and “homeland security”’. (Why that last phrase appears in inverted commas, I have no idea.) And Omand’s book focuses on how seasoned intelligence analysts think, how they sort out fact from fiction, and thus build a reliable picture of the world. Espionage (or ‘Spying) may play a part in that process, but the fact that GCHQ has traditionally picked up electronic signals from the ether that have been transmitted with the awareness that adversaries will intercept them, and attempt to decrypt them, is not indicative that spying went on. Intercepting citizens’ private telephone calls or email messages without legal authority would be another matter, however.
How Spies Think turns out to be a very practical, and riveting, tutorial in how (good) intelligence analysts process information, and the author presents his analysis as a guide to how the rules for sound decision-making can be applied to everyday life. He outlines a four-step process, the SEES model, as a method for developing confident judgments about uncertain intelligence that may be arriving in a variety of forms. It consists of the following levels (and I quote directly):
* Situational awareness of what is happening and what we face now.
* Explanation of why we are seeing what we do and the motivations of those involved.
* Estimates and forecasts of how events may unfold under different assumptions.
* Strategic notice of future issues that may come to challenge us in the longer term.
All his explanations are liberally illustrated with examples from military and intelligence history, such as the D-Day landings, the Iraq War, the Falklands War, the Invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I must confess a personal fascination with these ideas. I spent the most important part of my career as an analyst at the Gartner Group, where we were charged with assessing the situation in our area of interest and expertise, and presenting forecasts for a five-year time period based on our analysis of trends, technologies, vendor capabilities, market dynamics, and buyer preferences and profiles. (The acid test of such processes occurred when a five-year cycle was completed, and one’s forecasts from the past were dredged up for review.) I was always intrigued as to why so many smart persons would have contrary opinions as to what outcomes would be, and it turned out that a certain hard-headedness, even cynicism, and a good dose of practical experience in the field, were required to cut through much of the idealistic waffle that attached itself to many technological initiatives. Thus the analysts who believed they could change the world, or who imagined vendors to operate against their own interests (as opposed to the emissaries they sent to industry consortia), who were simplistically influenced by the more skillful of the vendor marketing campaigns, or who ignored the dynamics of buyer politics, were essentially lost. The most serious defect they displayed was viewing the world as they hoped it could be rather than as it was.
Furthermore, my last job, as VP of Strategy for a small software company, showed me how even skilled executives can ignore intelligence if it gets in the way of their personal agenda and use of power. As part of the strategic planning process, I developed a simple scheme for separating Facts about the market and technology from Assumptions about such matters as competitive threats and future innovations, and started to determine why different executives in the company sometimes maintained conflicting ideas about the unknowns we were addressing. It turned out that the CEO was really not enthusiastic about a formal strategy, as she regarded it as possibly inhibiting her desire to act spontaneously and whimsically: moreover, she paid too much attention to Wall Street, where the analysts looked to her to be a ‘deal-maker” (i.e. engage in precarious acquisition strategies), as it would enhance her reputation (and maybe the stock-price in the short run). The VP of Research and Development (who worked 1500 miles away from Head Office) believed, as creator of the product, that she had a unique insight into what features the product needed, but would change the schedule according to which large customer walked into her office. The VP of Sales did not want his creative energies to be limited by being told what market segments he should pursue to make his numbers. Thus cool assessments can always be undermined by personality traits and private ambitions.
But back to Omand. His text is studded with accurate and useful observations. He offers a clear-headed analysis of how Bayesian approaches of conditional probability can help develop alternative hypotheses to explain events, and how new evidence thus enables new situational awareness, such as in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He presents some cogent insights on topics relevant to historians as well as intelligence analysts, such as the following, on the reliability of a source: “Like the historian who discovers a previously unknown manuscript describing some famous event in a new way, the intelligence officer has to ask searching questions about who wrote the report and when, and whether they did from first-hand knowledge, or from a sub-source, or even from a sub-sub-source with potential uncertainty, malicious motives or exaggeration being introduced at every step of the chain.” (p 27) He offers a provocative section on ‘Reluctance to act on intelligence warnings’, although he fails to delineate a clear linkage about general intelligence about inhuman crimes (e.g. genocide in Bosnia: ‘something has to be done’), and how that intelligence is converted into political action. He laments the communal ‘magical thinking’ at the time of the Falklands crisis that prevented anticipatory action in time – a clear echo of my point about self-delusion over realities.
Since the four SEES items comprise Lessons 1-4, the rest of the book covers Lessons 5-10. Again, Omand offers a very lively lecture, almost impossible to simplify. I thus recapitulate these Lessons for the eager reader, the first three grouped under the heading of ‘Checking our Reasonimg’:
5. It is our own demons that are most likely to mislead us
6. We are all susceptible to obsessive states of mind
7. Seeing is not always believing: beware manipulation, deception and faking
The final three are characterized under ‘Making Intelligent Use of Intelligence’:
8. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side
9. Trustworthiness creates lasting partnerships
10. Subversion and sedition are now digital.
This section includes several insightful passages, such as his coverage of conspiracy theories, where he cites Peter Wright as noted delusionist. He provides (on pages 142-143) a useful checklist of memes that characterize a conspiracy narrative, and admits that today’s world of social media makes it much more difficult to debunk or dismantle such theories. He adds, somewhat beguilingly, that his experience ‘is certainly that even in the world of secret intelligence cockups outnumber conspiracies by a large margin’. He recommends a number of steps that an analytic team should perform to check their models in the light of new information, since even such disciplined teams can fall in love with their own theories. I found all this accurate and hard-hitting advice.
I thought, however, that Omand’s arguments became a little slack, the further on he went, and even presented some contradictions. For instance, I considered a phenomenon of Number 8 that Omand does not cover: the appeasement of Stalin in the belief that he would behave like a decent English gentleman after sitting in meetings with the likes of Anthony Eden, and the completely misguided strategy of ‘co-operation’ that the Foreign Office tried to forge as the Soviet Union and the Western Allies fought together against the common enemy. It was the inability to imagine that Stalin was an irredeemably ruthless individual, an autocrat who did not have to listen to ‘the hard men in the Kremlin’ (or even to his own people, as he claimed) that resulted in a disastrous misjudgment of his intentions.
And, as for 8 and 9, whom should one trust? Should the USA and Great Britain really have sat down at the conference table with the amorphous and undisciplined Taliban, for instance, knowing that that body was utterly untrustworthy? Would one of Omand’s ‘negotiated agreements’ have meant anything? On Lesson 9, Omand concentrates on ‘trust’ between natural affiliated allies, such as the USA and Great Britain, and the long-term value that such strategic alliances can bring. But how enduring are they? Are they institutional, or too dependent on personalities? Can President Trump, or a Brexit, disrupt them in both directions? Do the FBI and the CIA, or MI5 and MI6 trust each other? Do members of NATO trust each other over controversial issues like Afghanistan? Does the public trust the government? It is in this section that Omand’s advice tends to become a bit preachy and idealistic, and I should have liked to read more on when and why the process of intelligence analysis fails.
Moreover, even if the analytical process is correct, the problem will be one of political will, made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone and his sister will be out there on a public platform criticising policy, or recommending populist change. The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan is turning out to be disastrous: one expert stated on television that the USA had given the Afghan government the materials, the training, and the intelligence, but that it lacked the political will to resist. Yet an assessment of the integrity and fortitude of the Afghan administration should have been one of the factors in intelligence-gathering before planning the withdrawal. (Bayesian reasoning does not appear to have helped here.) On the other hand, from intelligence gained, China’s intentions regarding territorial expansion and authoritarian control seem evident enough, what with the suppression of the Uighurs, the closing down of democracy in Hong Kong, and its claims on Taiwan, but does President Xi’s policy represent an existential threat to the West, and how can it be resisted given how economies are interlocked?
Omand’s argument disappointingly starts to get mushier in lesson 10 (‘Subversion and sedition are now digital’), where, after covering the dangers from cyber-crime and -espionage, he tries to summarise: “Finally, in Part Three I have wanted to persuade you that to manage our future sensibly we all need effective partnerships based on trust and the ability to establish constructive relationships with those with whom we have to deal.” Who is that ‘we’? – the familiar plea of the journalist with his or her heart on the sleeve, appealing to an undefined audience. And a page later, he follows with: “We are on notice that there are further developments in information warfare capabilities over the horizon that will further damage us, unless we start to prepare now.” All very vague and unspecific, more like an article by the Archbishop of Canterbury: not a useful call to action.
In a more puzzling denouement, Omand appears to discard his own Lessons in his final chapter 11: ‘A final lesson in optimism’. It is as if his Editors told him that he had to leave his readers with some hope among the chaos. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the rules of today’s digital byways, and the author then rather fancifully projects forward to ‘a warm spring day in Trafalgar Square in 2028’. After welcoming a return to representative democracy, Omand attributes the success to three schemes. The first was a major five-year programme in schools to teach critical thinking for the digital world; the second was ‘a marked reduction in the vulnerability of the public to online manipulation and disinformation’. He illustrates it as follows: “There was praise for the leadership of the new US President in calling a 2025 global conference on internet norms that had brought together democratic governments, civil society groups, the major internet companies and the global advertising industry.” (p 291) This is pure Kumbaya wish-fulfilment: maybe Osman’s own demons trying to mislead him, his own ‘magical thinking’. The third scheme was a stronger defence against cyber-coercion. However realistic that third plank may be, the chapter constitutes a weak ending to an otherwise strong book.
As a coda, I offer this suggestion. In a recent LRB review of Scott Anderson’s book on the CIA, The Quiet Americans, Charles Glass presented a long list of US intelligence failures, including many of Omand’s examples, from the Soviet atom bomb to 9/11, which he tantalisingly attributed to a ‘neglect of intelligence gathering’, rather than to a failure of analysis. So perhaps a broader study is required: how ‘spies’ collect information, whether they all cogitate over it according to Omandian principles, what happens when they disagree, and what occurs when they present their conclusions to their political masters. ‘How Politicians Think’ would be a valuable follow-up. All politicians who set out to ‘change the world’ should be interrogated to determine why they think they know best what ‘the world’ needs, and why their enterprises will necessarily make it better, not worse.
Finally, I noted a few questionable assessments in the text overall.
P 139 “The paranoia even crossed the Atlantic. Under the charismatic influence of Angleton, a small group of MI5 officers in London led by Peter Wright caught the obsession with long-term Soviet penetration. Angleton sent the defector Golitsyn to London to brief them and help them uncover the Soviet weevils presumed also to be burrowing away within the British intelligence agencies.” They did? What ‘weevils’ were those? ‘Presumed’ or ‘real’? If ‘uncovered’, presumably the latter. But who? I think we should be told.
P 141 “We now know that he [Hollis] was cleared by high-level British government inquiries, confirmed by evidence from later KGB defectors.” Well, actually not quite true. And who are ‘we’, again? The question was very much left open: Gordievsky may have pooh-poohed the idea, but his and Christopher Andrew’s explanations about ELLI muddied the waters. If it were only that simple.
P 174 “The Cabinet Secretary would have been all too aware that the incoming Prime Minister [Wilson] had been, as we saw in the previous chapter, the subject of unofficial inquiries by a clique of MI5 officers in response to the CIA’s Angleton into whether Wilson was a KGB agent of influence.” A clique? Who, in particular? Is that intelligence or rumour? That claim deserved greater detail. Was it an example of ‘How Spies Think’?
P 175 “Eric Hobsbawm knew he had been discriminated against . . .” Of course, Hobsbawm should have been discriminated against! See my comments under MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law, above.
P 215 “That led to the uncovering of the Russian spies Donald Maclean . . . and Klaus Fuchs.” Maclean and Fuchs were British citizens, but Soviet spies.
P 243 “We all carry, for example, unconscious fear about others who appear different. This instinctive xenophobia is the result of our evolutionary history as a species.” This is a very risky and debatable generalization, a dangerous step into the domains of anthropology and biology.
P 275 “The individual Western citizen is thus already, and will be for the foreseeable future, the recipient of digital information of all kinds . . .” Both a statement of the obvious, as well as a feeble prediction: ‘the foreseeable future’ (like ‘only time will tell’) represents a vague prognostication that should NEVER be used by any reputable intelligence analyst, let alone an officer of Omand’s stature. The period could be five minutes or fifty years. I forbad my team at Gartner Group to use either of the two phrases.
But definitely the best book of the four. The ‘wise cryptanalyst’ is not on my list.
(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)